Thursday, 18 July 2019

Retailing as brand management - an example from Apple

Ira Stoll at Reason reports on a visit to an Apple store:
I was looking for a computer to replace the nine-year-old MacBook Pro on which I am writing this column. I was also considering getting a new phone and passing my three-year-old iPhone SE along to a family member.

I left without a new computer or a new phone, but with a valuable lesson—one that you wouldn't necessarily learn if you spent your time listening to the presidential candidates bashing technology companies. One of the best ways to succeed long-term in capitalism is by treating customers well rather than ripping them off.

I was eyeing one of the desktop computers with an integrated Apple screen, Apple keyboard, and Apple mouse that would have cost more than $1,000 altogether. But the employee at the Apple store advised me I'd be better off just getting a cheaper "Mac mini" and buying the mouse, monitor, and keyboard somewhere else. On the phone question, he said I should go to a Verizon store—it had better deals.
Stoll positions this response as a customer service policy for retail and maybe he's right. I suspect, however, this is part of a larger trend for big consumer brands - using the retail environment as a brand management tool. Apple's high street presence seems to serve two purposes - a place where current Apple customers can get support and a place where people (who may or may not be Apple customers) can browse the company's products with trained people to explain what all the complicated stuff does. Selling you a phone, computer or accessory is pretty much secondary to the positive impact on brand image.

I recall a similar visit to a Bose store in Liverpool. We were looking for a good wireless speaker system (it's sitting next to me as I write this) and had a long chat with the young woman serving us. They didn't have the model we wanted in store but they could get it and have it delivered, "or you might get it on Amazon or a good electronics store". This led to a conversation about how she was paid - "aren't you guys on commission?". The answer was "no", they're salaried - the company had stores primarily to promote the brand rather than as a sales outlet.

In elite retail environments - large city centres, up-market malls and some smaller high streets - this sort of retailing is becoming more evident. From Aaron Renn reporting on the mustard shop in New York's Upper East Side through to the spectacular Johnny Walker House in Shanghai we're seeing the rise of retail as brand management. This development reflects the declining effectiveness of advertising in a world of subscription TV, ad blockers and online news - large advertising budgets are being redirected into paying shop rents rather than for minutes on TV or pages in magazines. Sales don't matter next to footfall and the same principles (how many and what profile) apply to shop rental decisions as applied to TV or newspaper ad choices Whether this is a good or bad thing for the high street is moot - it maybe sustains high rents where otherwise demand would push those rents down (Renn points out that Starbucks couldn't afford the rent round the corner from that mustard shop) but perhaps acts also to push out traditional retailers from up-market environments.


Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Want to solve your city's housing crisis? Simple - build more houses, any sort of houses

So much angst is being expended on trying to solve London's (and other places too - Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester and so forth) housing problems. It seems that the solution is rather simpler than all the think tanks, planners and mayors suggest:
It is not some magical mystery as to why Sydney's rental prices are declining. And it's certainly not due to rent control. It's because Sydney's seeing a building boom. The size of Sydney's apartment market has doubled in two years, and landlords have had to drop rents in order to get tenants.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported over the weekend that the city has seen more than 30,800 multi-unit dwellings built last year, a record for any Australian city. And there still are nearly 200,000 additional dwellings in various stages of development. The city is seeing a glut driven by investors. And those investors are now leasing out the apartments.
So it's easy. Allow more development. And to do this you have to encourage speculative investment:
About half of Australia’s apartments are likely to be owned by an investor. And lending to investors in NSW, rose sharply a few years ago, fuelling a real estate investment boom that created this massive rise in rental stock, Ms Owen said.
There are risks here but primarily (as connoisseurs of Spain's 2000s housing boom will know) for the investor not the renter or the taxpayer. So why is it that governments are stopping things that drive this investment (foreign buyers, Airbnb, liberal planning regulations) and then complaining that there aren't enough houses? Or, worse, blaming high rents on those investors - look at Barcelona's Airbnb protests - rather than on the failings of mayors and local councillors.

I appreciate that mayors want to placate the NIMBYs (remembering that current residents have votes while possible future residents don't) but if, in doing so, those mayors propose counterproductive ideas like rent controls, foreign investment controls and height limits then they should be bundled out of office for being dangerous fools.


Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Accountability (public sector newspeak version) is complexity.

“Surveyor, in your thoughts you may be reproaching Sordini for not having been prompted by my claim to make inquiries about the matter in other departments. But that would have been wrong, and I want this man cleared of all blame in your thoughts. One of the operating principles of authorities is that the possibility of error is simply not taken into account. This principle is justified by the excellence of the entire organization and is also necessary if matters are to be discharged with the utmost rapidity. So Sordini couldn’t inquire in other departments, besides those departments wouldn’t have answered, since they would have noticed right away that he was investigating the possibility of an error.” Franz Kafka, The Castle
Accountability in public services matters and probably matter more than accountability in traded private services. As consumers we do not get much choice in who provides our refuse collection service, our health care, our social services and much else besides - short of migration, that is.

I don't know about you but I've a suspicion that accountability is talked about more and made more complicated than it needs to be, and because of this the extent to which public services - and servants - are accountable is compromised. You only need look at the contortions engaged in by NHS grandees in avoiding personal accountability for services under their direction, to know there's a problem. And just so you know, the same goes for local councils, for the MoD and for services such as prisons and courts.

Part of this lies in the perversion of accountability as a concept. Here's a paragraph from an interview with academic, Toby Lowe, who specialises in public sector management. I present it in two halves so you can appreciate the point I'm making:
True accountability is not about counting but asking people to give an account of their actions as part of a dialogue in which they explain the decisions they have taken in the specific context they are working in.
This is a pretty good description of accountability and something that happens too infrequently and, when it does, very badly. You only need sit in a typical local council scrutiny committee or watch MPs parade their prejudgements at a select committee to appreciate the problem with our process of holding public servants to account for "...the decisions they have taken in the specific context they are working in."

Lowe chooses, however, to complicate the simplicity of "what did you do, give us the basis for that decision, how did you plan to assess whether your decision was right, what was the review process" - straightforward scrutiny - by producing an elaborate and extended further qualification of accountability:

It’s also not just about the traditional hierarchical relationship. There are multiple accountable relationships. Your peers could ask you to account for your decisions, as could a member of the public who is receiving the service – or an ombudsman or professional body. The main thing is that real accountability involves a conversation.
For sure we're broadly accountable in all these ways (to a greater or lesser extent) but the essence of public sector accountability is that services are accountable, through their representatives, to the public. It's not that, in an purely administrative context, there aren't other relationships involving accountability but that if you don't understand how accountability in the relationship with a colleague is less important than accountability to the public you serve then you've missed - and I suspect Toby Lowe has - the whole point of public accountability.

The problem here is that accountability becomes just a management tool - Lowe talks about 'learning' and 'autonomy' but at no point recognises the central requirement that the service is, first and foremost, accountable to the public. The process becomes personal or management development rather than accountability:

The learning element in particular requires a radical rethink. How within an organisation do you create safe spaces for learning and reflection, where people can talk openly about errors and uncertainty with their peers?
Probably a good thing but we need a further step - if we are to base service delivery on greater autonomy (again probably a good thing) then those delivering the service have to "give account of their decisions" in a place and a manner that allows those to whom they are accountable to make a judgement as to the effectiveness, the ethics and the efficiency of those decisions. Simply saying "it's complicated" strikes me as a cop out and merely provides a screen behind which those who should be accountable are able to hide.

We have a variety of problems with public accountability, from the distance between the theoretical decision-makers and the actual service through to the use of appointed boards to oversee provision without providing adequate space for any real scrutiny of the service's ethics, behaviour, decisions, and effectiveness. This is made worse by the conflation between 'accountability' within the decision-making process (to colleagues, managers and so forth) and real accountability to the public. This not only provides cover for politicians but also allows senior management to bury their responsibility and accountability in a confusing and complicated set of management processes.

Accountability is not complicated. In the private sector, if I don't like the service I get from one supermarket, I can complain and get satisfaction or exercise consumer sovereignty - make the supermarket accountable - by taking my shopping elsewhere. We don't get this option with public services and this is doubly true for vulnerable groups like the ill, the disabled and the homeless. And right now the effectiveness or otherwise of these services - their accountability - is either lost to the point of non-existence in Kafkaesque bureaucracy or else is under the direction of badly chaired, poorly briefed and overly partisan political scrutiny processes. Changing this, not creating "safe spaces for learning and reflection", is what we need but that would require political leaderships and senior managers to accept real accountability and the responsibilities that go with it.


Monday, 15 July 2019

How to use misleading statistics in a bid for government funding - the LGA and public health at their finest

Council chiefs have warned of a ‘childhood obesity crisis’ as new figures reveal that the number of young people being treated for Type 2 diabetes has increased by nearly 50% in five years.
Not the statistic but the spectacularly misleading way in which this scary paragraph is framed. It is, I'm afraid, an absolute classic of the public health scare story genre - guaranteed to get media coverage but utterly deceptive.

So let's look at the numbers:
Figures from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health show that 745 children and young people under the age of 25 received care for Type 2 diabetes in Paediatric Diabetes Units in England and Wales in 2017/18.
The first point here is that we're not talking about children here - unless we've begun categorising those aged 18-25 as children? Of the cohort in question (under 25 years old), a third -32% to be more precise - are adults i.e. aged over 18. Some of them may be obese and may have Type-2 diabetes but using these figures to claim an increase in child diabetes is simply wrong.

And that cohort? There are 17.4 million of them meaning that the 745 who have 'received care' for Type-2 diabetes represent a massive 0.004% of the population. There may have been an increase since 2015 of 50% but this is still not in any respect a crisis (except perhaps for the individuals most of whom will be over 18). Even with the more inflated Diabetes Association estimate of 7,000 under 25s who have received support for 'diabetes-related' conditions, the problem still only affects 0.04% of the cohort.

There has been a trend in public health using secondary factors to substantiate proposals for either new regulations, new taxes or more local government funding. Mostly this is because there's not really any evidence that child obesity is rising:

That's from King's College - here's the latest from the NHS itself:

Again no indication that child obesity is rising (indeed it has fallen for children arriving in primary school). So public health look for other statistics to peddle their hysterical fussbucketry, most commonly statistics like these on Type-2 diabetes that, while interesting, suffer from a whole load of flaws (changes in referral practice, greater awareness of symptoms, new centres and facilities to support diabetes) that mean the increase could be entirely unrelated to changes in the number of obese children and relate more closely to better diagnosis and more provision in the NHS system - both good things but no justification for advertising bans or bunging millions for local councils to splurge on useless obesity programmes.


Does our attitude to work change how employers see the workplace?

 This may or may not be true (there is a deal of rose-colouring going on in some looks back at old time blue collar work) but it is still an important question posed by sociologist, Tim Strangleman:
But we also ask critical questions as to why, not so long ago, ordinary working-class people could enjoy conditions at work that gave them dignity, confidence, and hope that their lives were getting better, decade by decade, and that the children’s lives would be better still. It poses questions for all of us as workers, as voters, stock holders, and citizens: why is treating workers well seen as a cost on the balance sheet to be controlled rather than the right thing to do?
Some will point to the declining influence of trade unions (and their accompanying descent into political muck-raking rather than serving their members), others will say that we no longer have any 'jobs for life' and are obsessed with the idea of career as an endless progression rather than work as a noble, uplifting means to sustain ourselves and our communities.
"I've never done one job for three years. This is the first time I've done this and I feel it's time for me to move on to different challenges,"
I guess it's easy for a rich and successful actor like Peter Capaldi to say this but it signals that staying in a job - not a progression, not a career, just a job - for any length of time represents some sort of failure. There's also a sort of assumption that the only route to fulfilment is through a career. Having a great allotment, breeding champion racing pigeons or playing club cricket let alone raising a decent, caring family no longer rank up there with being, as the reluctant cannibal's dad achieved, "chief assistant to the assistant chief".

This isn't to belittle ambition or to push aside the importance of that dignity, confidence and hope but to ask about the order of carts and horses: does the decline of 'treating workers well' result from the sense of disloyalty and the view that work is a means of a career end not a purposeful thing in and of itself? Or, to push into this further, is the 'human resources' department with its annual appraisals, personal development plans and centralised personnel management the reason senior managements no longer consider worker benefits and the work environment as a source of corporate pride. Here's Strangleman talking about Guinness's brewery at Park Royal in London:
Along with earning decent wages and good pensions when they were relatively rare features of blue-collar life in the UK, Park Royal workers also had access to a range of sports facilities and cultural activities onsite, subsidised by the company itself. On top of that, Guinness had hired Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the premier architect of the day, to design the buildings. The grounds were laid out by some of the top contemporary landscape gardeners, who planted hundreds of different tree species and thousands of shrubs. All this not because the company had too, but because they felt it was the right thing to do, because they wanted to.
I'm sure there are employers with this enlightened outlook (Naked Wines have a slide) but there has been a systemisation of worker relations, the domination of rules and an HR-driven obsession with progression. The idea that we should treat a workforce like a community has gone and that managements should invest in that community, for all that not every employer was like Guinness, has long gone replaced with that stifling centralised HR bureaucracy we have all grown to love along with a wholly utilitarian relationship between the individual and their work.


Friday, 12 July 2019

Whose idea of beauty is it? Thoughts on why new homes don't look great.

My friend and former colleague, Huw Jones is your go to man for knowing about back-to-back housing and, in particular, the plethora of such housing in Leeds. It looks like this:

Most of these homes were thrown up to house the poor in Leeds and over 20,000 of them remain. Outside West Yorkshire (Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees all retain them albeit not so many as in Leeds and stone not brick) all the back-to-backs have gone except for a few specially preserved historical relics in Liverpool and Birmingham. Leeds, however, is the only place to have back-to-back housing built after 1909 (indeed the most recent of Leeds' back-to-backs date from 1937). There's a reason for this, of course, because the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909 prohibited the building of back-to-backs. Leeds found a loophole by claiming that the homes already had approval at the time of the Act.

When we look at these homes and especially those built, as in the picture above, in long streets, we see the classic image of England's inner city slums - narrow streets, homes opening straight onto the pavement, shared middens and little fire safety. But as Huw Jones was wont to observe, as a built form, these homes use land efficiently, were built well enough to last longer than many homes built more recently, and provided a not unattractive street scene.

This isn't an argument for us building back-to-backs again but rather a chance to raise a question as to what constitutes beauty in housing and to ask further why so many of the homes built today by mass house-builders are at best boring and at worst downright ugly. Here's some built, unlike the back-to-backs in Leeds, to house people well enough off to afford to live hard by the RHS gardens at Harlow Carr on the edge of Harrogate:

When I posted this image and asked these questions on Twitter, I received a variety of responses pointing to potential causes - greedy developers, planners and the planning system, the clunkiness of building regulations and that consumers care little about beauty preferring functionality. The thing for me is that, for all that these things might be causes, there is a depressing similarity between cheap homes for the poor built using a loophole in regulations and new homes for the middle classes in North Yorkshire.

Just as some people look immediately to the supposed greed of these developers, my instinct is to look at our planning and land supply systems. Builders cut corners (my Twitter question produced a lot of 'forget what they look like, look at how badly they're built' responses), use cheaper materials and have 'cookie-cutter' designs because it's the only way they can build the homes at a low enough price. Most of the development cost is sunk into buying the land, getting planning permission, paying exceptional costs demanded by planners or regulations and coughing up for the new development tax, Community Infrastructure Levy.

But there's another thing here - what we're told is beautiful (or great architecture or brilliant design) is what we believe is beautiful. And beauty matters because, as Richard Florida says, beautiful cities are more successful. But what is beautiful?
I go on to explain that they’ve been so propagandized to see it as the quintessential work of art that they never really look at it. “Do you know what ‘sfumato’ is? What makes La Gioconda (what its called in Spain) better than this (I toss up a portrait by El Greco) to you?” The classroom usually breaks out, mildly, into chaos, as students actually begin to think about what they are seeing.
Our aesthetic judgements are, like so much else, guided by received wisdom. And the received wisdom for the design of cities isn't the anonymous developers who built Parkside Terrace in Cullingworth:

No, our urban aesthetic is set by architects and those who write about architecture. Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and the Smithsons - advocates of pragmatic, functional, utilitarian buildings. This approach - most obvious in America's ubiquitous 'prairie style' housing - is what we're seeing in those houses built in Harrogate: functionality, utility, value. To return to our example, it's not that the Mona Lisa is objectively the greatest painting but rather that we've all be told (over and over again) that it is the greatest painting.

The article with that Mona Lisa comment goes on to argue that places (Rational Urbanism uses is Springfield, Massachusetts) need to argue for their own beauty not simply try to copy the received idea of beauty. We're told that New York is more beautiful and that the weather's better in Florida but never step back and ask if this is really the case.

So perhaps the reason for those Harrogate homes is that design guides, the architects and planners beliefs - that received wisdom - lead us to this look: pragmatic, functional, utilitarian homes intended to meet the needs of middle-class homeowners in terms of parking, storage, heating, room layout and garden space. The consumer is not buying frills and don't worry about there being no chimneys, no bay widows and a more-or-less eaves free (and therefore sparrow and swallow free) roofline.

The way in which building design evolved in the 20th century led us to this place. It is driven by the manner in which Le Corbusier and others took an entirely functional view of humanity - folk to be stored, moved smoothly from workspace to homespace. The aesthetic wasn't scaled at a personal level but with reference to masses - how do we house millions efficiently, how do we make workplaces for thousands, not how do we make great homes for Mr & Mrs Smith. The result of this is our obsession - straight from Le Corbusier's soulless authoritarianism - with density and the sacredness of the countryside. Even when, as is the case with those homes in Harrogate, we take a small part of that sacred green belt, it's done as a minimum and as densely as possible to meet the dominant aesthetic yet cater to actual human desires.

The irony in all this - and the failure of the utilitarian approach - is that, given a choice and the opportunity, most people don't want to live in dense, crowded, impersonal spaces:
...the main finding of nearly every survey on the subject is that millennials mostly want to live in suburbs, and as they grow older that preference increases. There’s hardly any evidence at all suggesting that there’s a huge pent-up demand for city living that’s going unmet.
To better meet human needs and to repersonalise housing and development, we need to look again at the dominant aesthetic and perhaps to step away from the internationalist, skyscraper style that dominates our ideas of urban goodness. We need to stop speaking about sprawl and ask again how we build suburbs - you can call them garden cities if you wish - that work with the natural environment as well as with most folk's desire for a house with a garden somewhere nice. And that somewhere nice will, in our minds, look and feel more like those Leeds back-to-backs or Cullingworth terrace (for all their lack of outside private space) than it will resemble the great modernist towers that are their modern equivalent.

If you've to consider beaty in the built form, does it have to look like this?


Monday, 8 July 2019

Yardley Syndrome - how anti-troll campaigners end up as trolls

It's a Twitter version of Stockholm Syndrome where those who spend most time shouting about trolls (especially but not exclusively alt-right trolls) end up being trolls themselves:
Twitter do me a favour, I'm on a train and my signal is rubbish and I'm writing a thing about biting back at alt right trolls and my search function isn't working. Send me your favourite burn I've ever done to a sexist. Ta. X
So it begins. This Tweet, sent out by one of the most vociferous of the "we must do something about the Trolls" MPs, makes my point beautifully. What does Jess Phillips think will be the result of this message? Maybe it's a bit thoughtless or perhaps it's an indication that Ms Phillips has, in her desire to have a social media impact, succumbed to the same tricks and tactics as any teenaged 'troll' (or indeed - teenagers probably get a bad rap here - trolls of any age).

"I'm writing a thing about biting back..." This isn't a mature, considered approach such as we might expect from a member of parliament but rather the sort of mindset that produces those interminable blogposts setting out the evils of the blogger's chosen subject of hatred. You know, the ones filled with out of context drags from social media, long screeds on how horrid these people are to the blogger and lots of bold headlines. All interspersed with chunks of text in capital letters.

An MP sat on a train chooses to spend her time writing a 'piece' about horrid people on the Internet and how she socked it to them. Among things that we might expect an MP to do faced with an hour on the train and no phone signal, this is not what folk would put at the top of the list. Yet it seems increasingly, from MPs of all stripes, to be the thing that bothers them the most. I'm sure they'll snap back with catty comments about how their constituents love them and "what would you know about what I'm doing anyway" but it isn't a good look when an MP uses that time to write about trolling ("favourite burn" is merely a celebration of that trolling, nothing else) groups of people on social media.